World Population Report highlights water challenge

Posted: 3 October 2002

As human numbers and consumption continue to rise, unsustainable practices and policies are undermining the natural resources on which we all depend, threatening the well-being of people and the planet, says the 2001 State of the World Population report from the United Nations.

Increasing pressures on fresh water supplies, agricultural land and fish stocks present unprecedented challenges, according to report by the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA).

The report says the balance between humanity's demands for fresh water and the quantity available is already precarious. Over the past 70 years, global population has tripled, from 2 to 6.1 billion, and water use has grown six-fold. The world population is projected to increase to 9.3 billion by 2050.

Women line up for water in Zimbabwe. Credit: Neil Cooper/Still Pictures

An estimated 508 million people live in 31 countries that already experience water stress or scarcity and the situation is expected to worsen in the next few decades. By 2025, it is predicted that 3 billion people will be living in 48 such countries. More people are using more resources with more intensity - and leaving a bigger "footprint" on the earth - than ever before.

Many countries use unsustainable means to meet their water needs. Some local aquifers are being depleted faster than rainfall can replenish them. The water tables under some cities in China, Latin America and South Asia are declining at over one metre per year.

Health problems

Poor water quality is another problem. The World Health Organization estimates that more than 1 billion people do not have access to clean water. In developing countries, 90-95 per cent of sewage and 70 per cent of industrial wastes are dumped untreated into surface waters where they pollute the usable water supply. In many industrial countries, fertilizer and pesticide run-off and acid rain contaminate water supplies; expensive, energy-intensive filtration and treatment are required to restore acceptable water quality.

The report says purely technological solutions to water scarcity such as desalination and transporting icebergs are "likely to have limited effect." Instead it recommends restoring natural flow patterns to river systems, increasing water use efficiency - especially for irrigation, which uses two thirds of available fresh water - managing chemical use and animal wastes, curbing industrial air pollution, and instituting effective pricing policies.

Food security

The report also states that over half the world's population - most of the people of the developing world - live in low-income, food-deficit countries that do not produce enough food to feed their people and cannot import sufficient food to close the gap. In many countries population growth has raced ahead of food production in recent years, especially in Africa. An estimated 2 billion people in developing countries already lack food security.

But the report stresses that a huge "consumption gap" exists between industrialized and developing countries. The world's richest countries, with 20 per cent of global population, account for 86 per cent of total private consumption, whereas the poorest 20 per cent account for just 1.3 per cent. But while it is true that more global environmental damage is caused by the consumption patterns of the rich than the numbers of the poor, rapid population growth in poor countries does create extra stress on the environment, because of the drive for adequate food and water supplies.

One key recommendation in the report is to increase access to education and health care, and to improve livelihoods and expand opportunities, especially for women. Achieving equal status between men and women and guaranteeing the right to reproductive health, including the right to choose the size and spacing of the family, will also help to slow population growth, reduce the future size of world population and relieve environmental stress.